SWORD OF XANTEN (Film Review)

A film review for a change, but anyone who enjoys medieval fantasy, especially with a Nordic flavour, will love this.

For a start, there is a hero quite unlike the typical Hollywood midgets (Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt); tall and slender, handsome and shy, Benno Fürmann (that is who I’m describing!) plays Siegfried, the young crown prince of Xanten, whose parents were killed in a raid and who was then brought up as his son by a blacksmith (Max von Sydow, as always excellent). This simple blacksmith, however, turns out to be also a master swordsmith and swordsman and he teaches the boy all he knows.

One night a shooting star falls to earth in the forest not far from the smithy. Two people run to investigate. One is Siegfried, now full grown, the other Brunhild, Warrior Queen of Iceland (played by Kristanna Løken), who is travelling with her entourage by ship along the great river, presumably the Rhine, and happens to be spending the night nearby. They fight over the strange lump of metal lying among the blackened and smoking tree stumps that is all they find where the shooting star landed. Siegfried wins. Brunhild is astonished. No one has ever beaten her before, and it has been foretold that only one man ever will, the man destined to be hers – which is why she fights, and kills, all who come to her in Iceland as suitors.

All night they make love, and at dawn she leaves, with Siegfried vowing to come to her and be king to her queen, and Brunhild promising to wait for him and to love only him for ever.

From the remains of the meteorite, the lump of metal that they found, Siegfried fashions a sword that is superior to all others: the sword which will become known as The Sword of Xanten.

Then one day he goes into the city with his “father” to deliver a consignment of swords to the King of Burgund. There, the King’s sister, Princess Kriemhild (the beautiful Alicia Witt), falls in love with him. And when he goes out alone and slays the hitherto invincible dragon (huge and very realistic) and claims the dragon’s treasure, the famous Rheingold, this does nothing to lessen her adoration.

He, of course, shows no interest in her: his heart is elsewhere, with the Valkyrie Queen Brunhild in Iceland.

But trouble is looming, for at the core of the dragon hoard is the Ring of the Nibelungs. And though warned not to touch it, the ever-fearless Siegfried takes it, laughing, for his own.

Everything starts to go wrong. Great love turns into tragedy.

I find it difficult to fault this film. It has everything, beautiful scenery (the smithy in the forest with the river swirling past, three longships sailing towards us through the mist in the fjord), authentic magic (shape-shifting, Odin’s ravens, the witch casting her runestones) all vividly and convincingly portrayed, two women who have never been denied anything in their lives, the one so forceful, the other so devious, and now both so passionately in love with the same man …

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A CLASSICS BOOK TAG

I took this idea from “Madame Writer” – please visit her HERE to see her responses.

  1. An overhyped classic you really didn’t like:

One I started a couple of times but didn’t like and never finished is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

  1. Favorite time period to read about:

I especially like to read about the medieval period, but we are talking classics here, not Historical Fiction, so I’d say the 19th Century from Jane Austen, the Brontë Sisters and Mrs Gaskell through Dickens to Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Kipling and the rest.

Time already for a bit of colour, so out of all those I’ll select my favourite Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights cover:

  1. Favorite fairy-tale:

Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen.

  1. What is the most embarrassed classic you haven’t read yet:

Tolstoy’s War & Peace – though I’ve read his Anna Karenina twice, and loved it.

  1. Top 5 classics you would like to read (soon):

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers KaramazovCervantes‘ Don Quixote, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Catriona. (And War & Peace, but not “soon”!)

  1. Favorite modern book/series based on a classic:

I’ve read two so far of Martin Davies’ series featuring Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs Hudson and young Flotsam (Flottie), the girl she has taken under her wing. Highly recommended!

  1. Favorite movie version/tv-series based on a classic:

David Suchet’s definitive rendering of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – the books being classics, surely, by now. Also Viviane Leigh as Anna Karenina in the 1947 black-and-white film.

  1. Worst classic to movie adaptation:

Maybe The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (2005) but that is almost impossible to adapt successfully to the screen – it started as a radio programme with all the freedom that medium gives the writer. It leaves everything to the listener’s (or, later, reader’s) imagination, while a film version is simply how one person’s visualised it with all the constraints and limitations of that medium.

  1. Favorite edition(s) you’d like to collect more classics from:

I love the Everyman’s Library editions. Click on the ikon!

  1. An underhyped classic you’d recommend to everyone:

Laurence Durell’s Alexandria Quartet – in my view one of the greatest works of the 20th century. Durell’s poetic portrayal of Alexandria in Justine, Balthazaar, Mountolive and Clea ranks right up there with Joyce’s portrayal of Dublin in Dubliners and Ulysses, and personally I much prefer it.

 

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER by Ian Fleming (Review)

Diamonds Are Forever cover

I’ve been spending the evening – and much of the night! – with James Bond again. This time it was Diamonds are Forever, the third of the original novels that I have read since reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography on this site.

I talked about the sexism and the racism in earlier reviews (here and here). In Diamonds are Forever, which is set mostly in the USA, all that is once more there in the background, of course. It is still the 1950s, and without the racism and sexism typical of the period the book would seem like a badly researched historical novel written by someone in the PC here-and-now. But Fleming was brilliant at portraying a time and place, and everything in this book is exactly as it was. Don’t take my word for it; listen to Raymond Chandler: “The remarkable thing about this book is that it is written by an Englishman. The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this.”

What our James is up against here is American gangsters. And when M gives him the mission, it is evident that M is more nervous about sending him on this job than he ever was when sending him on “Iron Curtain business”. Talking to the Chief of Staff later, James says “What’s he so worried about? […] There’s nothing extraordinary about American gangsters. They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves.”

That’s what you think,” the Chief of Staff replies.

By the end of the book, James has learnt better – and is seriously considering marrying the “gangsters’ moll” known as Tiffany Case.

Which brings me to another thing. In each of the three books I have read so far (this time round) James has fallen in love, literally, and by the time the story draws to an end is contemplating marriage. Is this the hard man who treats women as sex-objects to be used and discarded which seems to be everyone’s idea of him and how he has been portrayed in many of the films?

Speaking of the films, I remember that Diamonds are Forever was my favourite. I’m going to watch it again this evening and do a post tomorrow on the story – or rather the two stories, for there were, I now realise, some major changes in the film version.

LIVE AND LET DIE by Ian Fleming (Review + some thoughts on Political Correctness)

In my review of Casino Royale (following on from my reading of James Bond: The Authorised Biography) I mentioned – it was difficult to avoid it – the overt sexism. In Live and Let Die, while the sexism is still there (of course, it was written in the fifties) it is more the racism that sticks in our PC-brainwashed throats. Mixing my metaphors a bit here, but you know what I mean.

Let’s start with one or two quotes, not from philosophers or politicians, but from novelists, because the novel is what this blog is really all about

“I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism.”

That’s P. D. James.

Doris Lessing quote

Note that they are both women.

So what exactly is the problem here? First and foremost, I imagine, the continual use of the word “Negro”. But this book was first published in 1954. Even ten years later, the word “Negro” was being used without any pejorative connotations by one and all – witness Martin Luther King’s use of it in his great speech delivered on the 28th August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

(http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm)

Now let’s get back to the book. Speaking of “Mr Big, a negro gangster”, Fleming has M say:

And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions – scientists, doctors, writers. It’s about time they turned out a great criminal […] They’ve got plenty of brains and ability and guts.

Which leads us straight to Mr Big himself:

Born in Haiti […] initiated into voodoo as a child […] emigrated to America and worked successfully for a hi-jacking team in the Legs Diamond gang […] bought half-shares in a small nightclub and a string of coloured call-girls. His partner was found in a barrel of cement in the Harlem River in 1938 and Mr Big automatically became sole proprietor of the business. [After the war] he disappeared for five years, probably to Moscow […] returned to Harlem in 1950 […] bought up three nightclubs and a prosperous chain of Harlem brothels […] as a result of weeding by murder, he was expertly and diligently served […] originated an underground Voodoo temple in Harlem […] rumour started that he was the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness, and he fostered the story […] commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders.    

A much more entertaining villain than poor old Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

But what about the ageism? Bond and Solitaire are heading for St Petersberg, Florida. She tells him about it:

Everybody’s nearly dead in St Petersberg […] It’s the Great American Graveyard […] Everybody goes to bed around nine o’clock in the evening and during the day the old folks play shuffleboard and bridge, herds of them […] but most of the time they sit squashed together in droves on things called “Sidewalk Davenports”, rows of benches up and down the sidewalks of the main streets. They just sit in the sun and gossip and doze. It’s a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and false-teeth […] You’ll love it […] You’ll probably want to settle down for life and be an “Oldster” too.

God forbid,” says Bond. As well he might.

Later, he is there with Felix Leiter.

Bond noted the small grudging mouths of the women, the sun gleaming on their pince-nez; the stringy, collapsed chests and arms of the men displayed to the sunshine in Truman shirts. The fluffy, sparse balls of hair on the women showing the pink scalp. The bony bald heads of the men. And everywhere a prattling camaraderie […] You didn’t have to be among them to hear it all. It was all in the nodding and twittering of the balls of blue fluff, the back-slapping and hawk-and-spitting of the little old baldheads. [And so on.]

That offend you? If you are one of them, it almost certainly does . Time to hear from Stephen Fry, well known representative of another minority group, but not a great fan of Political Correctness or a supporter of censorship or bowdlerisation:

The bottom line is: do we, can we, recognise that our notions of political correctness are purely local in time and space?

Live and Let Die is a great story. We have no more right to criticise it on PC grounds than we do to criticise the Bible or Homer or Shakespeare – or Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mark Twain – on those same grounds. It, and they, are true to their day and age. You don’t have to read it if you fear some of the words or notions in it may offend you, but if you do read it, I think you will enjoy it.

And here to close is something I found on the internet. Oh, please …

political_correctness_04

 

CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming (Review)

Casino Royale cover

I read Casino Royale that night I said I was going to (after reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography) but never got round to commenting on it. However, now that I am about to embark on Live and Let Die, and have some time free, here goes.

I won’t tell you the story. You may have read the book once, no doubt long ago, or perhaps seen the film – not Sean Connery, this one was more recent and starred Daniel Craig along with Eva Green, a great favourite of mine since I first saw her as Sibylla in Kingdom of Heaven.

Eva Green in Kingdom of Heaven

And here she is with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale:

Casino Royale

But back to the book! All I want to do in this “review”  is draw attention to a few points that strike me as interesting,

Firstly, we meet “M” and get the whole set-up and a two-page Top Secret document on SMERSH at once. I somehow found this surprising. I’d always imagined that Fleming introduced these things, built up this alternative universe, gradually, but no, he had it all there ready in his head before he ever started.

Secondly, there is a reference at the beginning of the book to one of James Bond’s earlier cases. (remember this is the first Bond book Fleming wrote, and chronologically the first Bond adventure.) I’ll quote the passage. “Head of S” has just emerged from M’s room and is telling “Number Two” who has been chosen for this special mission:

‘One of the Double Os – I guess 007. He’s tough and M thinks there may be trouble with those gunmen of Le Chiffre’s. He must be pretty good with the cards or he wouldn’t have sat in the Casino in Monte Carlo for two months before the war watching that Roumanian team work their stuff with the invisible ink and the dark glasses. He and the Deuxième bowled them out in the end and 007 turned in a million francs he had won at shemmy. Good money in those days.’

Now I already knew all about that case in Monte Carlo, from the Authorised Biography. You can’t imagine how at home that made me feel in Bond’s universe!

Thirdly, his (Bond’s? Fleming’s?) misogyny, sexism, call it what you will. When Bond first hears that his sidekick on this job is to be a woman, he is furious. This pest of a girl … Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. When she turns out to be the stunning Vesper Lind (think Eva Green) that makes his attitude worse, not better. Then she is abducted by the villain, Le Chiffre, and as Bond races after her in his Bentley, it is just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men … For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched … But we have to remember that this is a man, and surrounded as we are by psychologically emasculated 21st century males, we may need to suspend our modern prejudices along with our disbelief as we read these books. And to be honest about who we would want racing to our rescue in similar circumstances. And in Fleming’s defence (SPOILER COMING) it turns out, ironically, that it is not Vesper who has “fallen for an old trick like that” but Bond himself. The abduction had been a trap Bond raced right into.

Finally, there follow two chapters that constitute perhaps the most horrifying and haunting torture scene in modern literature. It is there in the film but it is toned down. In the book he spends weeks in hospital recovering before he can return to the arms of Vesper. (Yes, she emerged unscathed.) This business of the reader / cinema-goer as voyeur, watching James Bond endure agonies  that only he could, is another key feature of the James Bond product. Perhaps the film world did it best in the very first one when he fell into the hands of the sinister and sadistic Dr No – once again while attempting to save a beautiful girl. James Bond as Knight Errant then. The man you pray will come along when you are chained to a rock and the dragon is approaching – even if he does believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. (As you will have guessed by now, I have a feeling he is right.)

Anyway, this evening I have another date with him: Live and Let Die.

Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (Review)

Dedicated reader though I am, I do occasionally watch a DVD when I find myself at home for the evening with nothing to do. And so it came about that last night I watched, again, after ten years, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

 7thS5

It was shot in black and white on a real shoestring budget (Bergman predictably could not find backers for his marvellous script), yet it managed to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957 and has been acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece ever since.

A knight, played to perfection by Max von Sydow, returns from the Crusades to find Death stalking the land. The opening scene of the film, dawn on a bare northern beach, reveals the knight and his squire sleeping on the pebbles while their horses wait patiently at the water’s edge. They do not appear to have been shipwrecked. Presumably they were put ashore there during the night. The knight wakes, washes his face in the sea, kneels and prays.

Then turns to see Death standing behind him. “Who are you?” “I am Death … I have walked long at your side.” “That I know.” The knight proposes a game of chess. Death accepts and the game proceeds, giving the knight a respite during which he can save at least some of the small group of helpless people who collect around him.

Bergman tells us that he was inspired by the Carmina Burana, the songs of the wanderers, the homeless and the seekers during the 13th and 14th centuries, the time of wars and famines and plague, of the Great Mortality and the Dance of Death. He was also inspired by the passage in the Book of Revelations from which he took his title, Revelations chapter 8. The first verses are read, voice-over, during the opening scene. Read it for yourself. Then the knight’s wife does so, aloud and at length, during supper when the knight arrives home towards the end of the film. She has been awaiting him all these years and now they are finally reunited in death.

It is a cross between a medieval Morality Play, made up as it is, partly, of allegorical figures and events, and a modern Historical Novel, with tragedy and humour intermingled, scenes memorable for their realism, their happiness and love (the dreamy and lovable wandering player Jof and his beautiful wife (Bibi Andersson) and perfect baby, symbol of a future which looks to be in grave doubt), for their horror (the procession of self-flagellating penitents stumbling through the villages, the girl burnt as a witch before our eyes), and for their sheer timelessness (Death with his string of captives in silhouette dancing off across the horizon at the end of the film).

Bergman said of it that it was one of the films closest to his heart. It is now one of the films closest to mine.